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Popular Science Online Faces Ructions Over ‘Rip Offs’

24 March 2010 | Knight Science Journalism Tracker

By Charlie Petit

Popular Science online faces grumbles it is putting its own bylines on writing lifted from press releases and other pubs.

News aggregation by websites, lifting other people’s stuff from their original publishers’ sites and putting one’s own spin, or just name, on it is part of the new media.

That’s what we do here at the Tracker – take other people’s writing or broadcasting, link to it or summarize it, and put our names at the bottom. It is important, however, to make crystal clear the distinction between what we write or provide on our own steam, and what others did already (and to give original authors and publishers due and unmistakable credit, prominent direct links to originals, etc).

The well-known magazine Popular Science has a website that does aggregating as well. It often employs a hybrid style – putting at the top of some posts its own staffer’s byline, with a credit at the bottom to the source that actually provided the information rewritten and re-reported to varying degrees at Pop Sci.

Late last year the writer of a piece that ran originally in IEEE Spectrum magazine complained directly to Popular Science that one of the Pop Sci bylines ran on top of a light rephrasing of his reporting. He called it a rip off of a science writer’s work – a practice that erodes the ability of freelancers to make a living. I then asked John Mahoney, web editor at Popular Science what was going on. He defended the practice, saying they always did provide a link to original material and adding that “we would never consciously screw over other writers or reporters on the web.”

Nonetheless, ructions continue. Today Wilson da Silva, editor of COSMOS Magazine in Australia, sent me the link to an online to-do over original writing and subsequent rehashings, and credits therefor, at the Australian edition of Popular Science. It is the second item in a post, rip-and-read science journalism at a site in Oz called Crikey. The assertion there, bolstered by links, is that Pop Sci re-ran two university press releases with hardly a change but put its own bylines on them.

Pop Sci’s Australian editor is quoted to say that recycling press releases is “standard practice across the science magazine industry.” Da Silva responded to that post in a readers’ comment – which you can see if you scroll down a bit here. One of da Silva’s ripostes: “This is not the case at COSMOS, or at any other science magazine that I know of.” He then links to COSMOS articles that did arise in part from a press release but included extensive additional quotes and evidence of reporting.

Da Silva reports that some of his examples of Pop Sci’s apparent regurgitation of stories from COSMOS or press releases have since disappeared from easy view at the Pop Sci site – but as nothing truly dies on the web, he ran down the originals here and here.

What to make of all this? The specific examples open upon the long-standing issue among web journalists, aggregators, and other new-media hybrids about intellectual property, uncredited liftings of prose, outright plagiarism, and transparency of provenance. There are hardly any cops, courts, or other enforcers of rules.

One problem may be the blurring of distinction between using without attribution a full-bore journalist’s story at a news outlet (IEEE Spectrum can be considered such), and using a public information officer’s press release, in both cases putting one’s byline on it. I have seen many examples while working at the tracker of news stories, emblazoned with the immediate publisher’s bylines, but reporting information and using quotes identical to what was in press releases.

Is there an ethical distinction between not identifying prominently and immediately, by name and source, what one takes from a press release and what one takes from an independent journalist? My instinct is to say yes. But in the vanishing old-timey world of traditional journalism some outfits considered unattributed lifting of quotes, even from press releases, to be a firing offense. Codifying such things in today’s world is difficult.


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